““Really, it is not the
business of the gods to bake clay pots.”
“In This Age of Hard Trying, Nonchalance Is Good”
Chimaera I (July 1916), 52, ll. 1-2.
Moore wrote to her brother, Warner, on July 22, 1915, that she was reading “four or five” novels by Turgenev that she had borrowed from a friend, Mary Bosler. She thought they were excellently constructed and “hummers.” Then, in the journal into which she entered quotations that appealed to her, she copied a line from Fathers and Children: “Really, it is not the business of the gods to bake pots!” This wording leads to the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood that appeared on page 187 in several editions, 1903, 1911, 1915, all from Charles Scribner’s Sons.
The immediate context in the Turgenev work is a scene in which Bazarov, a young nihilist who believes his age group should renounce everything that smacks of Russian tradition, and Arkady, his more traditional fellow student, argue about the uninvited appearance of Sitnikoff. Sitnikoff has been praising George Sand as a champion of women’s rights, a position Bazaroff thinks hopelessly out of date.
“What the devil did that blockhead Sitnikoff come for?”
Bazaroff first moved in his bed and then emitted the following:—”Thou, brother, art still stupid, I perceive. Sitnikoffs are indispensable to us. I—mark this—I need such dolts. Really, it is not the business of the gods to bake pots! . .”
“Aha, ha! … .” thought Arkady to himself, and only then was the whole bottomless abyss of Bazaroff’s pride disclosed to him for an instant. “So thou and I are gods? that is—thou art a god, and am I the dolt, I wonder?”
“Yes,”—repeated Bazaroff grimly,—” thou art still stupid.”
While Moore begins her poem with Bazaroff’ line, it is likely that the quotation simply pointed her in a direction, possibly concerning the contemporary literary scene. Whoever is being addressed in the first two stanzas—perhaps a writer or writers—are found to be lacking in humility, missing the main chance to succeed.
The last two stanzas begin with another quotation:
“Taller by the length of
a conversation of five hundred years than all
the others,” there was one, whose tales
of what could never have been actual—
were better than the haggish, uncompanionable drawl
Here again Moore works with a quotation from an article, “Angels” in The New Statesman for June 26, 1915. After describing stories similar to what we would call urban myths, such as angels siding with the winning Boers, the writer says:
[Angels] are represented as beings of various sizes. According to a Jewish tradition, each angel is one-third of a world; but the angel Sandalfon is said to be taller than his fellows by the length of a journey of five hundred years.”
Moore interpolates “conversation” for “journey” in praise of the storyteller with highly effective “by-play” and his weapon, “self protectiveness.”
In this instance, it seems likely that the quotations were chosen for their wording and not necessarily for their context. A clue to this thought lies in Moore’s having put an end note in the Observations version to the first quotation: “Dostoievsky.” However, the two are paired in a way that balances the argument of the poem through contrast.